The San Blas Islands are on the Caribbean side of Panama and not too far from the Colombian border. There are over 350 islands that make up the archipelago and a large portion of them are inhabited by indigenous people known as the Guna people. The Guna people live an autonomous life, which can be hard to find in our ever-changing world. What's even more interesting is that the villagers own plots of land on the mainland of Panama where they grow their crops, which are then brought to the islands. Fishing, however, in the Caribbean waters are not only their main source of protein, but also a large portion of their income. Most Gunas can be seen wearing colorful traditional clothing that they've learned to sew from generations past. They have spiritual leaders called sailas within their communities and they still practice many traditional rituals. Large Colombian cargo ships pull up to the islands a few times each week so that the Guna people have an opportunity to trade and sell goods in the currency of coconuts. With wild and unfiltered beauty, the Guna people are blessed to own some of the most picturesque islands we have seen in the world. Getting to the islands can be not only a challenge geographically, but can be expensive and also a negative experience if the guides don't have positive relationships with the Guna people. After many hours of research, we chose to explore the San Blas islands with San Blas Adventures. If you're looking to visit San Blas, see our quick guide and tips for the trip here.
Standing in Colombia on our last night before we embarked on the journey, looking out to the ocean waters, we knew we had all of our necessities for the trip. We had some ideas about what to expect from the tour, but we still felt naive staring at the sea. It brought us back to those same feelings we had the night before we left home back in September 2017. Our goal is always to seek the unknown. To taste, see, and experience a world apart from the one we had grown up with. To evolve.
The alarm sounded bright and early, we ate our breakfasts with a little bit more anticipation than normal, and we scurried with our bags, separating everything that we would need with diligence. There was a light drizzle as we headed out of the bay and, before we knew it, we were in Panamanian waters. First stop was a rodeo at immigration where we were required to remove every last thing from our bags for men (with large guns) to inspect. Passports stamped a couple of hours later, we gleeful hopped back into the boats and sped off towards the islands. Anticipation was in the air. The next four days of our trip were unlike anything we'd experienced before. What stands out the most to us can be categorized into three highlights: the unique culture, the scenery, and the sense of adventure.
the cultural experience
San Blas Adventures is a bit different than the rest of the companies offering San Blas tours because they have a unique relationship with the Guna people. The first two nights, we slept directly in the Guna villages in their bungalows. We were lucky enough to interact with the locals and even take morning walks alone through the village. As we wandered the village, kids ran out of all of the homes adorned with one of two facial expressions: complete happiness at our presence or complete shock. For most of the kids, they knew exactly what our presence on their land meant... a wild game of duck duck goose (pato, pato, gallina in Spanish). With fifty kids in a circle at dusk, we watched one westerner after another fall victim to these little kids speedy antics. This carried on until the kids antsy legs couldn't rest any longer and the civil game erupted into absolute chaos. Three things we won't soon forget: the sounds of those little laughs, how out of shape we are, and those big genuine smiles.
One night, Pedro, our guide, sat the 25 of us down and shared some Guna culture and traditions with us. This conversation ended up being one of the most memorable from the trip. We learned a lot about the villagers, but this was one of our favorite stories. Traditionally, when a young women was interested in a young man, she would tell her parents. They'd decide together if he was worth marrying. Once decided, her parents would set up a meeting with the boy's parents and the four of them (without the "couple") would decide if their children were a good match. If everyone agreed, the boy would be plucked from his home (most likely unwillingly and unexpectedly) and taken directly to a hammock with a candle lit underneath it to meet his new wife. The couple would then be swung in the hammock seven times, and just like, they are married. Although this is not the practice anymore, we loved hearing this tradition and that the girls had the power of choice.
As the Panama border faded in the distance, we sped along the jungle coastline thinking about what kind of wild creatures and vegetation lived among the dense trees. Locals had told us that the jungle that connects Colombia and Panama is some of the most uninhabited jungle in the world. So much so that Panamanians even forget about it altogether because it's rampant with vegetation and drug trade. Our minds were drawn back into the boat as we arrived to our first island, which was a postcard come to life. Our eyes couldn't believe the clear blue water glittering in the sunshine, white sand with palm trees scattered about, and 30 fresh coconuts waiting for our arrival. This island was teeny tiny and we shared it only with a couple of Gunas who were watching after our rowdy group.
The guides had been speaking of this magical island since we left the mainland, and we couldn't wait to see what all the hype was about. Upon arrival, we looked at each other and said, "this is why we travel" as we hopped off the boat to a football field-sized island that was all ours for the next 24 hours. Our toes were welcomed with warm, white, powdery sand. We quickly claimed our hammocks for the night among our new friends from around the world. The next day, we spent our hours reading, geeking out over photography with another photographer in the group, eating fresh lobster, playing beach volleyball, drinking rum and coconut water, and soaking up the sun.
The locals that own this island have done a wonderful job at keeping it up and preserving it. However, that has not stopped climate change from impacting this beautiful island (check out the aerial photo at the top of the blog which demonstrates how much larger the island used to be before rising sea waters).
The last island, mentioned above, was our favorite and it delivered both adventure and relaxation. We opted to take it slow and relax during the afternoon. That was until a commotion erupted as a boat pulled up to the island. The men on the boat quickly shuffled off large buckets speaking rapid fire Spanish. Curious, we wandered over and saw a bucket filled with about 30 live lobsters and 5 octopus for our dinner feast. We found ourselves wondering how much this basket would cost back home in the states. As the night went on we were treated to a jungle juice concoction, a fresh seafood dinner, and even late night fireworks. We were lucky enough to be on our guide Pedro's last trip with San Blas Adventures, so the fireworks were for a special occasion. We were taken by surprise often during the four days, as new adventures were always just around the corner!
Something about this experience left us with a feeling. Not only do we have pictures and memories to remember our time on the San Blas Islands, but we have a warm feeling deep in our hearts. After traveling for 15 months, this was one of those experiences that reignited our travel flame. We had the opportunity to learn about these indigenous people that not many are lucky enough to see. We chased kids around until our legs gave out on us. We ate fresh seafood and drank rum from coconuts. We lived, we laughed, and we traveled on a deeper and more meaningful level.
our discount code
Use promo code THELOVE at checkout for a discounted rate on your trip with San Blas Adventures. Each person will receive $20 off, so make sure you complete a separate transaction for each guest.
** Update: As of the start of 2020, San Blas Adventures is no longer honoring discount codes. However, we absolutely still recommend booking the trip.
For the love and adventure (and rum and coconuts),